Tag Archives: local government

Normal Planning Commissioners earn their pay

Actually, they don’t receive any pay, but they sure deserved some Thursday evening after spending three full hours listening to Town staff, developers, and the public while weighing the pros and cons on a couple of major zoning matters.

There’s something about the atmosphere of a planning commission meeting that irresistable for a local government junkie like myself. 

It’s raw and people wear their emotions on their sleeves.   There’s always a lot at stake in any zoning hearing.   It’s democracy at its finest.

As an elected official, it’s beneficial to witness it.  

There are things I see at planning commission meetings that, well, don’t ever show up in the minutes: the strength of the arguments, the passion, and the subtleties that someone who has spent more than two decades observing and participating in local government can pick up. 

Planning Commission chair Rick Boser does an outstanding job of maintaining decorum and a sharp sense of humor throughout the proceedings.   I enjoyed watching him run the meeting from the back row of the council chambers.   Rick is an experienced hand on the planning commission and it shows.

Sometimes, it’s a challenge to get the witnesses to stay on the subject matter, or even to face the right direction.   

Planning commissioners Jeff Feid, Kathleen Lorenz, Jill Hutchison, R.C. McBride, Michael McFarland, and Bob Bradley don’t get a lot of recognition, but I appreciate the work they do.    It’s not an easy job, but somebody’s got to do it.    And our community is better off because these quality volunteers have stepped up to do a thankless job.  

Thank you Planning Commission.

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Filed under planning, Uncategorized, Zoning

So what happened Monday night at City Hall?

The Normal Town Council spent another evening discussing how to deal with a revenue shortfall.  Unchecked it would mean going from a surplus in the general fund to a deficit in two years.

The Town is not currently in a deficit situation.  In fact, the town will end the current 2009-10 budget year with a surplus in its main operating fund.   But due to reduced state income tax collections and state and local sales tax receipts, the anticipated eight percent cushion will  fall to 2.5 percent of total general fund expenditures.   Our finance department recommends an end of year balance of eight to ten percent of general fund expenditures.

2009 Election

In this year's council campaign, we were well into the deepest recession in my lifetime. My top priority had to be maintaining the fiscal integrity of the town. And I remain committed to that goal. We will get through this without experiencing the kind of budget crises have enveloped cities unwilling to make difficult decisions.

The council’s goal is to avoid a deficit and to shore up the general fund reserves through a combination of budget cuts and tax increases.

While it’s tempting to simply cut your way out of your predicament,  we discovered that you have cut far too deeply into the basic services that define Normal town government.   That was not an option.

 Two employees signed up for the early retirement incentive.   Understandably, many employees close to retirement considered taking the benefit, but concluded that they would rather work, a typical response in an uncertain economy.

Still, staff identified several areas that could be cut without impacting services too much.  

  • Shiny cars and trucks take a back seat to programs.  At this time, it didn’t make a lot of sense to me to have enough vehicle reserves on hand to replace every police car, garbage truck, or mower at once.     $1 million from this fund will be transferred to the general fund over the next two years.   As far as I’m concerned, excessive vehicle replacement reserves are a good place to start.
  • Program cuts that are significant but are manageable.   The Harmon Arts Grants are a great gesture, and we are able to help several arts programs in the community, but we can eliminate those dollars while funds are tight.  The same holds true for Normal Newsline, half of the town annual tree planting budget, City Vision, and the parks and recreation program brochures.     Eliminating electronic recycling will save $175, 000 over five years.   Turning over operations of the Activity Center to Normal Township will save $323,000 over five years.   We need to develop a cost sharing arrangement with Unit 5 on crossing guards.
  • The 1/4 cent sales tax adds a quarter to the purchase of $100.  While I don’t relish it, imposing the quarter cent sales tax is the most painless way to collect $1.3 million per year.    We have done our best to delay matching Bloomington’s rate.   I had hoped we could hold out.   We no longer have that luxury.
  • A temporary property tax hike.  The 4.3 cent per hundred dollar rate increase would allow the Town to cover more of the cost of state-mandated employee retirement benefits with the property tax.  It would boost the tax bill of the owner of a $200,000 home about $30 per year.   We resisted a proposal to boost the property tax another 6 cents for operations.   In my mind, when the economy recovers, this tax hike goes away before the Harmon Arts Grants or the parks and recreation brochures return.
  • Other revenues include increasing the parking fines for the first time in 20 years to $20, boosting summer camp fees, imposing towing fees for cars involved in alleged crimes, and new technical rescue and auto extrication fees (usually born by insurance companies).

We said no to moving up the second half of the planned garbage fee increase.   The water/garbage bill has provided too much sticker shock as it is this year.  There was no reason to provide another premature shock.

I said no to a “convenience fee” for paying your bills on-line.  That’s my definition of an “inconvenience fee.” 

If we follow this plan, we will build up the Town’s general fund reserves to near $3 million by March 31, 2011 and $3.8 million the following year.

After the work session, the council met in executive session  for about an hour to receive information about the potential for involuntary job cuts.  At this time, there does not appear to be any council appetite for layoffs.  

 Hopefully, that relieves some of anxiety that I sensed in the city council chambers Monday night.

This is an unhappy but necessary part of the job.   During my re-election campaign, I pledged that the financial integrity of Normal Town Government would be my top priority.   It will remain my top priority for the rest of my term.

Program cuts and tax and fee increases are necessary at this time to prevent a budget crisis.  The economy will turn around, and these actions will help the Town rebound quicker than other communities.  

Our employees are doing a super job working through this time of reduced revenues and providing the kinds of services that make us all proud to live here.

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Filed under Budget, Taxes, Town Council, Uncategorized

The unwanted water feature tells me it’s time to redefine a major Uptown project

Unplanned water feature -- The Town of Normal is exploring renewed development interest in the stalled One Main building.   I believe the Normal Town Council owes it to the citizens of the community to the business owners who have invested in Uptown Normal to begin a public dialogue about what we expect this foundation to become.

Unplanned water feature -- The Town of Normal is exploring renewed development interest in the stalled One Main building. I believe the Normal Town Council owes it to the citizens of the community and to the business owners who are invested in Uptown Normal to begin a public dialogue about what we expect this foundation to become.

 

My immediate concern is that pumps be installed to rid this nearly two-year old foundation of water from the recent heavy rains.

Then,  real soon, we’ve got to sit down and discuss what we want to see here and what we want to see develop along Constitution Blvd.

Because two years of inactivity can’t be allowed to turn into a third or a fourth year.    

There is so much positive happening in Normal.   And I’m proud of the tremendous progress we’re making.   With every passing week, we are seeing more and more life in Uptown.   The trees that were planted this past week beautify the street scape.   People attending the Sweet Corn Festival could tell the plan is coming together.

But we can’t stand still.   This flooded foundation can not be allowed to be a millstone around the neck of Uptown.

We got to figure out what we want here.  Because the economy has changed commercial real estate lending, not just for the near term, but arguably for the foreseeable future.   The project the council and community envisioned here —  a six-story, LEEDs certified,  mixed use building with restaurants, retailers, offices, and owner-occupied condos is questionable.  

Fortunately, there is some genuine interest in a scaled down project that keeps Commerce Bank as a major tenant.   It’ is a very exciting possibility and one that the majority of the residents of this community would support.   Instead of six stories, it might be four.   

I believe we need to address the future of this project sometime this year.   The clock on the TIF district is ticking, and if we are going to continue to pay back the Uptown bonds in a comfortable fashion, we do not have the luxury of waiting indefinitely.

We need development that generates economic activity, not an empty foundation on taxpayer-owned property collecting water.

In the days following the 2003 election, the Normal Town Council demonstrated leadership to sit down and redefine the most significant project in the redevelopment of our community’s central business district.   The privately-owned Marriott Hotel and Conference center will be an economic engine for decades to come.   

No question, Uptown Normal is changing the definition.

To me, two years of inactivity with the potential for a third or fourth year of inactivity on an important and visible location represents another urgent situation that requires leadership and immediate attention.

I look forward to working with my colleagues on the council to help redefine a major project.

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Filed under Marriott Hotel and Conference Center, One Main, TIF, Town Council, Uptown Normal

Normal Marriott now shooting to open Sept. 25

If all goes according to plan, the Uptown Normal Marriott Hotel and Conference Center will open Sept. 25.Schock, White Sox, and Marriott July 2009 143

In the meantime, more than 100 construction workers are in the 229-room, nine-story tower each day working to finish the lobby, guestrooms, restaurant and bar and the conference center.

CORE Construction and Marriott managers led the Normal Town Council on our first hard hat tour of the hotel conference center since last fall.   So much has been completed.    Yet there seems to be so much to do.

Marriott is now designing hotels to have active lobbies.   Hotel guests and the public will be welcomed into the open lobby that exposes portions of the second, third, and fourth floors.   The lobby’s seating will divided into active and passive areas.  At the rear of the lobby is the hotel restaurant and bar which has been named Jesse’s Grill, in honor of Jesse Fell.

 The hotel registration desk will be on the right when you walk into the hotel’s Broadway Street entrance.

A view of the lobby:  The limestone trimmed columns rise four stories.  The spiral staircase winds up to the second floor on the Beaufort Street side of the hotel.  The gold color on the ceiling will be one of the dominant colors in the hotel.

A view of the lobby: The limestone trimmed columns rise four stories. The spiral staircase winds up to the second floor on the Beaufort Street side of the hotel. The gold color on the ceiling will be one of the dominant colors in the hotel.

A ramp leads back to the conference center and its very large pre-function area.

The Marriott has 23,000 total square feet of flexible conference space.  Remove the walls and the Ballroom opens to 100' x 200' seating nearly 1,200 people for a banquet and more than 2,200 for a reception.

The Marriott has 23,000 total square feet of flexible conference space. Remove the walls and the Ballroom opens to 100' x 200' seating nearly 1,200 people for a banquet and more than 2,200 for a reception.

Guest rooms are very nice, with rich colors and high quality fixtures.  For example, there is more than 80 tons of granite in the hotel.  

Schock, White Sox, and Marriott July 2009 172Schock, White Sox, and Marriott July 2009 173

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Filed under Marriott Hotel and Conference Center, Town Council, Uncategorized, Uptown Normal

Rating agencies keep Normal’s creditworthiness in top 3 percent nationally

The Town of Normal sold two fixed-rate bond issues this week at 3.9 percent, lower even than the projected 4.1 to 4.3 percent range our financial gurus thought we might see.

The Town's putstanding bond rating means local government can borrow money at lower rates.  The Town's bond payments are covered by a combination of a quarter cent sales tax (enacted in 2000 for the purpose of repaying redevelopment bonds), a large portion of the hotel-motel tax, and some food and beverage tax revenue.  Uptown TIF revenue also covers a portion of the bond payments.

The Town's outstanding bond rating means local government can borrow money less expensively. The Town's bond payments are covered by a combination of a quarter cent sales tax (enacted in 2000 for the purpose of repaying redevelopment bonds), a large portion of the hotel-motel tax, and some food and beverage tax revenue. Uptown TIF revenue also covers a portion of annual interest payments.

The lower rates will result in significant savings over the course of the issue which will help fund public portions of Uptown redevelopment . 

The Council voted two weeks ago to turn an older variable rate bond issue into a fixed rate, locking in more than $1 million in accumulated interest savings as a result of rates which were below 1 percent for a time.

A new 2009 issue takes the Town’s general obligation debt to about $80 million for Uptown redevelopment.

The best news was that despite the national economic slowdown, despite lower than anticipated sales and income tax receipts, and despite the less than stellar financial performance of our next door neighbor, all three major bond rating agencies (Standard and Poors, Moody’s and Fitch) left the Town of Normal’s bond rating unchanged.

At AA1, the Town’s bond rating is nearly unmatched among local governments in the United States, ranking in the top three percent of all U.S. municipalities, a testament to local economic conditions and long held conservative financial management philosophy of underestimating revenues and overestimating expenses.

The State of Illinois is borrowing billions to balance its fiscal 2010 budget.  Rating agencies are deciding whether to downgrade the state’s bond ratings, which could have a negative ripple effect throughout the state.

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Filed under Budget, City of Bloomington, Sales tax collections, TIF, Town Council, Uptown Normal

Discussions on future of Normal Public Library underway

A group of two Normal Public Library trustees, two staff members, and two councilmembers have begun meeting on the future facility needs of the library.

Our first meeting was a week ago in the basement of the library at 206 West College Avenue.

The goal is to come up with an action plan for the Normal Library Board and Town Council to consider.2008 Disney and other 593

We discussed the kinds of information and reports we need to review, including the recently completed space and program needs studies as well as community surveys.

I’m excited about working with Joan Steinburg, Jess Ray, Jason Chambers, Brian Chase, and Mark Peterson to map out a recommended plan of action.

In addition to reviewing the recent studies, we also discussed taking field trips to visit and experience a number of new and relatively new libraries in the state, as well as talk to community officials.

I think I can go out on a limb and say there is general agreement that maintaining the library in the Uptown area — somewhere — is preferable.

There’s no question, that the library is a popular and important Uptown anchor.

Beyond that, all options are on the table, including expansion on the current site, relocation to another Uptown site, and consideration of  a branch or other remote facilities.  

Clearly, we owe it to current and future library patrons to develop a strategy for meeting the future needs of this much beloved institution.  

We’re going to take our time and hopefully get it right.  I welcome your suggestions and will try my best to keep you informed about our progress.

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Filed under Normal Public Library, Uptown Normal

Normal’s water usage rates to jump 25 percent on Oct. 1

Normal’s water rate issue has been settled.

I told you that a rate hike was coming.  Now we know how much and when.

After yet another work session Monday night, the result means that the water utility will remain self sustaining, the Normal Water Department will be able to begin an aggressive program of capital improvements, and the water fund will be permitted to build up a 20 percent operating reserve in five years.    IMG_1392

When the council takes action at its next meeting, it will culminate months of study and will finally address ever increasing operating and capital water costs faced by communities all over the country.   These were costs that a 10 percent rate hike every three years could no longer address.

The rate increase could have been higher.

Town staff asked for a rate increase to fund an $2 million in additional water projects each year.   That would have resulted in 33 percent usage hike effective Oct. 1.   Instead, a majority, including myself,  supported a 25 percent usage hike beginning in October.  The monthly utility maintenance fee goes from $2.50 to $3.75, also a signficant jump.  

We will be able to finance $1.5 million in water projects above and beyond the annual $300,000- to $700,000 in new projects in recent years. 

If we did nothing, we would continue to invest fewer collars in water projects and come dangerously close in the coming years to running a negative fund balance, both unacceptable outcomes for a Town Council that prides itself on strong fiscal management.

In a previous work session I asked staff for a series of alternatives to their plan.   Monday night I helped persuade the council to consider a lower rate hike that would still address the immediate funding concerns, permit the water department to tackle more major projects, and build a cushion.    In the end, we save water ratepayers 30 cents per 1,000 gallons in the first year.  

For a user of 10,000 gallons per month, the savings will be $36 per year, a total of about $180 over five years.

I can understand if citizens don’t take solace in that figure.  

This is not fun stuff.  No one relishes having to raise water rates this high.   If we did our job correctly, water rates will be a subject the Normal Town Council won’t have to revisit for many years to come.

The good news is that even in 2014, you’ll still be able to buy 1,000 gallons of clean refreshing Normal tap water for $6.07, roughly the price of a 24-pack of 16.9 oz bottles of water.

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Filed under Water